A hot and crowded train station in Florence, Italy. It’s 1997. There’s no such thing as social media, email barely exists, and cell phones are mainly for the rich. Ten days ago in Amsterdam, I made plans to meet my friend Elliot here at noon, but it was a long shot either of us would actually show. Yet, somehow — despite my driving a borrowed Vespa the wrong way down a one-way street — I actually made it. Even more surprisingly, so had he. We were both hungry, which was great because we had heard that Italians know a thing or two about cooking.
The problem was money. Just coming to Europe was a huge stretch for me. Armed with only $363 — no ATM or credit card — to pay for food, shelter, and transportation for three weeks, I planned to hitchhike around the continent gaining new experiences and exploring the world. All my luggage was contained in one absurdly large backpack, which, to help save money, included a portable propane stove and a bunch of groceries, mostly instant mashed potatoes and canned soup.
But, this was Italy, so we were in the mood for pasta. And I had just what we needed: a pound of Wegman’s spaghetti and a jar of Prego tomato sauce. So, there, on a side of the road in Tuscany — one of the great gastronomic capitals of the world — we dined al fresco on pasta purchased in Syracuse, New York, with marinara manufactured in good ol’ Texas, U.S. of A.
I thought about this story recently while in my kitchen, realizing just how much things have changed. And I don’t just mean that I can’t travel as light as I used to or that I can now afford a decent meal. The world has become obsessed with food, and showing off culinary adventures on this thing called Instagram is an addictive form of social currency. I’m just as guilty as the next guy these days, but that summer in Europe, I didn’t even bring a camera because I didn’t want to let one take me out of the moment.
I guess you could say I’ve also become domesticated. I mean, here I was not only hand-forming tortellini with the gusto of an Italian nonna, but doing so for a group of friends first introduced to me by my — gasp — wife. It was our dear friend Sharon, my sister-in-law Natalie, her husband Dave, as well as their mutual friends Soon, and her husband, Michael: my one friend who’s as into wine as I am. He and I have become something of Francophiles over the years, so I thought it would be fun to explore a few Italian varietals. Not just the Barolos, Chiantis, and Brunellos more commonly seen on wine lists around the world, but some off the beaten path, as well.
Our first stop in Italy — I decided to focus on the North — was Veneto. I was fortunate enough to acquire a relatively rare bottle of olive oil from iconic wine producer Giuseppe Quaintareli. Known for his Valpolicella, Quintarelli has inspired generations of winemakers. And, as someone who’s fascinated by the historical significance and deliciousness of olive oil, I relished the chance to taste his 2018 vintage alongside one of his white wines, the Bianco Secco. An old adage about food and wine is “what grows together goes together,” and this might have been the ultimate example of that. For this course, I needed something simple but elegant that would really allow the flavors of the oil and wine to shine. I went with a crudo of hamachi with olive oil, pickled shallots, and, in complete disregard to staying within the confines of the north, Calabrian chile and Sorrento lemon.
From Veneto we moved west to Piedmont, home of Barolo — the king of wines — and a truffle Mecca. But, rather than go with the obvious choice of the Nebbiolo-based Barolo, we drank a Basadone. This wine, made from the obscure Pelaverga grape, produces a lighter bodied, crowd-pleasing wine. It was a nice compliment to our Crudo Carne Alla Albanese, a local version of steak tartare, which I made with black truffles and Piedmont beef, world-renowned for being lean and tender.
Then it was down southeast a bit to Emilia Romagna, home of parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto. Here I served the region’s most famous pasta shape, tortellini, stuffed with veal confit and sauced with a truffled balsamic. It was paired with Lambrusco, a specialty of the region. Lambrusco earned a bad rap in the 1980’s for being cloyingly sweet, but has seen since a resurgence in quality. When done right, this wine can be bone-dry yet refreshing, with bracing acidity.
For the next course, we found ourselves in Lombardy. This region’s great contribution to the Italian canon is Osso Bucco, which originated in Milan. Rather than serve a classically styled version, however, I presented a modernist take created by the internationally known chef Massimo Bottura. One bite and I was instantly transported back to my second trip to Italy, 17 years after the Prego fiasco. Only this was no side of the road, but, rather, the serene and beautiful dining room of chef Boturra’s three Michelin star restaurant, Osteria Francescana.
While dining at Francescana, I was completely enthralled by the food. Yet, my mind kept wandering to the World Cup game in which the U.S. was playing. I asked our server if he knew the score, and he just nodded his head affirmatively and walked away. A couple of moments later, our captain walked by and discreetly handed me a folded piece of paper. I opened up the note, and there, written in perfect handwriting, was: “US: 1 – Ghana: 1.”
It was baller in the most elevated sense of the word.
This take on the Italian staple was sleek yet soulful. With it we drank Nebiolo, a grape that is, as mentioned earlier, almost synonymous with Barolo. Only, this wine wasn’t from Piedmont, but from Lombardy’s alpine region near the Swiss border. I expected this to be accessible at an earlier age than a Barolo, but I was wrong. It was enjoyable, but tannic and tight. You could almost hear it begging to be put away in a cold cellar for a few years.
Our final savory course was braised short ribs with a red wine reduction and polenta — a staple of northern Italy and Veneto in particular. The real star of this course was the wine — another by Guiseppe Quintarelli. His Classico Superiore was complex, rich, and tasty.
Our last wine of the evening, before moving to espresso, was a Passito from Veneto. This is an Italian dessert wine made via a process known as appassimento, which involves drying the grapes in the sun to concentrate their flavors and sweetness. With it we had homemade gelato, flavored with the Quintarelli olive oil and accompanied by 25 year old balsamic vinegar— the last drops from a bottle I bought during that World Cup summer of 2014. The creamy yet light gelato took me back to that initial trip to Europe, when I first laid eyes on this Italian treat. At that point in my life, I had never even heard of gelato, and I was completely blown away that there was this whole other genre of ice cream. Looking back, I think it was the only real Italian “meal” I had that entire trip.
I’ve been to Italy a few times since that magical summer, eating at a few bucket-list restaurants along the way. But, those aren’t the moments I remember most fondly. For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, traveling is about the experiences, and the thing with experiences is that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t really plan them. Who would have predicted that my all time favorite culinary moments in Italy would involve asking a waiter the score of a game, or cooking a box of American spaghetti? Do I regret not bringing a camera on that first trip? A little. But I don’t need a photo to remind me how much fun Elliot and I had cooking those supermarket noodles, and I don’t think a pic of us boiling water would be that instagrammable, anyway.